Citizens tied up by red tape of Europe's free-travel zone

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The Independent Online
Nobody has counted the number of conventions, decisions, handbooks, resolutions, or annexes that constitute the Schengen agreement, but officials estimate they would stand about three feet high.

Europe's first botched attempt to set up a free-travel area, the Schengen agreement is a monument to the complexity of harmonising national laws in such sensitive fields as immigration, policing and criminal justice.

In these policy areas more than any other, every country wants its sovereign rights protected and its geographical "specificity" .

Over the years the Schengen machine has probably churned out more than 3,000 pages. The "common consular instruction" (harmonised visas) alone runs to hundreds of pages, with at least 14 annexes.

Some might say that the sheer unwieldiness of Schengen, signed, so far, by seven European countries, would have deterred the European Union's 15 member states from continuing down this path of integration, particularly at a time when the union proclaims a new commitment to simplifying its laws in order to get closer to "the citizen".

Yet this same Schengen agreement is about to become incorporated into the already labyrinthine texts of EU law.

As part of the present negotiations on EU reform, to be completed at Amsterdam in three weeks time, it is being proposed that Europe should set up an "area of freedom, justice and security". The foundations of this new EU-wide legislation will be the Schengen agreement.

The process of incorporating Schengen is causing such headaches for EU lawyers and diplomats that some predict the entire project may have to be abandoned. "It is a terrible mess," said one Brussels diplomat.

One country - Britain - bears the blame for causing such complexity. If Britain had not opposed the establishment of a EU-wide free travel area in the first place, there would have been no need for the Schengen agreement, say many European officials.

The story of Europe's attempts to establish open borders goes back to the Single European Act, under which it was agreed that, by 1992, the European Community would establish free movement of goods, services and people.

The former prime minister, Baroness Thatcher balked at free movement of people, as it would mean an end to the UK's internal border controls.

Other member states established their own free travel zone, without Britain, under the Schengen Agreement, which by next year will have been signed by 13 member states, with only Britain and Ireland outside.

Operating the Schengen system outside the EU, however, has proved deeply unsatisfactory, and other member states are therefore keen to rationalise the process within Europe's institutional framework. This means incorporation of Schengen and acceptance of its principles by all 15 member states.

The problem is that Britain's new Labour government is once again stalling at the integration.

And Tony Blair is causing even more headaches by saying that not only must Britain keep its internal borders, but it must also be able to "opt in" to other parts of Schengen such as crime data sharing.

"They just want to pick and choose - it can't be done," said one official.

For the sake of a political deal at Amsterdam a compromise is bound to be worked out. But the result will be a new European agreement of such monstrous proportions that it will far surpass the monstrosity of Schengen, meaning nothing at all to the "citizen".